Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! Today, we’re beginning our coverage on the best episodes from Maude (1972-1978, CBS), which was just released in full today, March 17, 2015!
An ultra-liberal housewife often finds herself in conflict because of her outspoken social and political views. Starring BEATRICE ARTHUR as Maude, BILL MACY as Walter Findlay, ADRIENNE BARBEAU as Carol Traynor, CONRAD BAIN as Dr. Arthur Harmon, and ESTHER ROLLE as Florida Evans.
Bea Arthur’s debut as Maude on a 1971 episode of All In The Family had the brass at CBS immediately determined to capitalize on both the actress and the character. Thus, Maude was born. First a backdoor pilot that aired at the end of All In The Family‘s second season (in which Marcia Rodd played Carol), the show went to series a few months later (now with Adrienne Barbeau). For the series, Maude was given a political adversary in snooty neighbor Dr. Arthur Harmon and a black housekeeper in Florida Evans, off of whom Maude’s extreme racial guilt could be bounced for comedic possibilities. Like its big brother series, Maude was immediately controversial for an early episode (November 1972) in which Maude considers having an abortion. The shocking two-part installment, airing several months before Roe v. Wade became the law of the land, has since gone on to become the series’ most well known, typifying the socially relevant stories for which Lear’s early ’70s shows were known.
The first season of Maude is the most topical of the bunch, sometimes even rivaling All In The Family. It must be noted that the series won’t be so issue oriented in later years — at least, not as consistently and comically — so these early episodes, although not the funniest, are unique. While All In The Family was the flagship show and probably remains Lear’s gold standard, Maude is the more theatrically intimate (delighting in realtime episodes that feature few actors) and has equally smart writing that goes for and often succeeds in eliciting big belly laughs. Meanwhile, Bea Arthur is the funniest woman on ’70s television, and she elevates every single script, sometimes even overshadowing the comparatively average Bill Macy in the process. But I have picked ten episodes that I think exemplify this season’s strongest installments. For new fans, this list will give you a place to start. For seasoned fans, there might be a few surprises.
Here are my picks for the ten best episodes of Season One. (They are in AIRING ORDER.)
01) Episode 3: “Maude Meets Florida” (Aired: 09/26/72)
Maude overcompensates with her new black housekeeper.
Written by Walter Stone & Rod Parker | Directed by Robert H. Livingston
Esther Rolle makes her debut in this, the first to feel like a fully realized Maude episode. That is, everything comes together for the first time, as Maude’s sociopolitical views are exaggerated and exploited to make her look comedically foolish. (In this regard, the character feels like a counterpoint to Archie Bunker, whose views on race also provide much comedy.) Maude’s relationship with Florida is, at this point, the series’ funniest, so this is a strong early installment that introduces their dynamic and sets the template for how the first two seasons will meet their comedy quotients.
02) Episode 6: “The Ticket” (Aired: 10/17/72)
Maude fights a traffic ticket in court.
Written by Erik Tarloff | Directed by Bill Hobin
Although I have a severe aversion to sitcom episodes that wind up in court (it’s a common and overused premise), it’s not bothersome here, as the laughs come from the characters. This is because the comedic crux of the episode occurs during the interactions between Maude and the young baby-faced officer who writes her a ticket for speeding. Her ways of manipulating him are a riot, and, not surprisingly, Ms. Arthur gives a fantastic performance. Solid early outing that gains distinction for having more laughs than some of the honorable mentions (that almost replaced this episode on today’s list.)
03) Episode 7: “Love And Marriage” (Aired: 10/24/72)
Carol considers marrying a wealthy friend for security.
Teleplay by Budd Grossman | Story by Ralph Goodman | Directed by Bill Hobin
This script is sharper than it would appear at first glance. In fact, this episode represents one of those rare instances in which a not-so-great story is paired with a teleplay that really makes it work. The A-plot of Carol considering a marriage for security is not comedically ripe; so the laughs come from a subplot between Maude and Arthur, who get into a hilarious screaming match that culminates in a no-holds-barred dish-smashing jamboree. It’s one of the season’s funniest scenes and indicative of both the performers and the writers rising above a constricted premise.
04) Episode 9: “Maude’s Dilemma (I)” (Aired: 11/14/72)
Maude learns she’s pregnant.
Story by Austin & Irma Kalish | Teleplay by Susan Harris | Directed by Bill Hobin
The infamous and aforementioned abortion two-parter kicks off here, in which Maude is shocked (read: hilarious turn by Ms. Arthur) to learn that she’s expecting. It’s a truly jaw-dropping moment for 1972 television, and it hasn’t lost any of its punch. Also, note that this is the first appearance of Rue McClanahan, who replaced Doris Roberts during rehearsal, as Vivian (a very different presence than she’ll be later on). The best remembered episode of the entire series, it’s one that should be seen by all TV fans. Although the installment isn’t the funniest; it illustrates the power of both the show and the medium. For newbies looking to get a taste of the first season, this is the one to watch.
05) Episode 10: “Maude’s Dilemma (II)” (Aired: 11/21/72)
Maude’s unsure of what to do about the pregnancy.
Story by Austin & Irma Kalish | Teleplay by Susan Harris | Directed by Bill Hobin
Although not as good as the first half, the concluding entry in the ‘Maude is pregnant’ saga involves Walter’s grappling with whether or not to get a vasectomy, after which he and Maude finally decide — together — to terminate the pregnancy. It’s a powerfully quiet scene: not played comedically, yet still satisfyingly rendered. Fortunately, Harris’ script is blessed with a lot of great laugh lines, particularly in the first act. (Love the Noel Coward joke!) My one complaint, and the reason I find the first part superior, is that Carol’s dialogue is inartfully preachy and her role is purely functional.
06) Episode 12: “The Grass Story” (Aired: 12/05/72)
Maude tries to get arrested for marijuana possession.
Written by Arnold Kane & Gordon Farr | Directed by Bill Hobin
A perfect premise for Maude: when a local boy is arrested for marijuana possession, Maude and her friends decide to protest the harsh laws by getting arrested for possession themselves. Of course, getting the ganja is harder than Maude anticipated, and this serves much of the comedy. Topical, funny, and completely fresh, this is the perfect example of a unique early season episode of this series, indicative of what the series could do when firing on all cylinders and emblematic of the type of stories for which Maude is best known today: socially relevant hijinks.
07) Episode 15: “Walter’s 50th Birthday” (Aired: 01/23/73)
An old friend dies at Walter’s 50th birthday party.
Story by Maurice Richlin | Teleplay by Pamela Herbert Chais | Directed by Hal Cooper
As I’ve said before on this blog, every sitcom from the 1970s (and on) has at least one episode where they try to glean humor from death. This series will do it several times a season, with mostly hilarious results. Depressed about turning 50, Walter’s anxiety is compounded when his old childhood friend comes to his party — and drops dead right in front of him. It’s a serious topic, but the script handles everything so broadly that the story retains its humor, all the while hinting at deeper and universally relatable issues. Not comedically superb, but narratively sound.
08) Episode 18: “Florida’s Problem” (Aired: 02/13/73)
Florida’s husband wants her to quit.
Story by Alan J. Levitt | Teleplay by Budd Grossman | Directed by Hal Cooper
As the only episode this season centered around Florida (aside from her debut), Esther Rolle makes the most of the script and runs with it. John Amos is introduced here as Florida’s husband Henry (later changed to James for the 1974 spin-off, Good Times) and their chemistry is already evident. It’s a fast-paced story enlivened by the usage of interesting characters played by strong actors. And, as a fan of Florida (on this series, less so on her own — which is marred by dimwitted scripts and a weaker supporting cast), this is a first season favorite and one of the year’s most humorous.
09) Episode 21: “The Perfect Marriage” (Aired: 03/13/73)
The Findlays are shocked to learn that the Cavendar’s are divorcing.
Written by Bob Schiller & Bob Weiskopf | Directed by Hal Cooper
Contrary to popular belief, divorce was not a rare topic for TV at the time. (Sensitive, yes, but seen more frequently than now presumed.) But this script eschews the topicality of the premise by centering it on the characters – and more particularly, the comedy. Bea and Bill are divine in this installment, which boats the second appearance of McClanahan (whose character is already something different than last time) and the first of two appearances of her soon-to-be ex, William Redfield. It’s a gaggy unsophisticated script, but it’s fast-paced and allows the actors to shine.
10) Episode 22: “Maude’s Night Out” (Aired: 03/20/73)
Maude and Walter banter as they prepare for a party.
Written by Pamela Herbert Chais | Directed by Hal Cooper
This is the second of two Season One episodes that play in real time on one set with only Maude and Arthur, and makes the list because it is comedically superior. You all know I’m a fan of these overly theatrical one-act outings (which this series does brilliantly), but comedy is still the main concern. Fortunately, the script, hinged on a premise that concerns several referenced-but-unseen new characters, is fresh, engaging, and unpredictable with big laughs that arise from relatable character-driven dialogue. Furthermore, the performances are first rate. A superb underrated installment; among the season’s finest.
Other notable episodes that narrowly missed the list above include: “Doctor, Doctor,” in which we meet Arthur and the script climaxes comedically, “Like Mother, Like Daughter,” in which Susan Harris’ script gives Bea Arthur a lot of great moments, “Maude’s Reunion,” in which Barbara Rush plays Maude’s old high school friend, “The Convention,” in which a discussion about gender roles occurs in a realtime episode that only features Maude and Walter in a motel room, and “Walter’s Secret,” in which Carol catches Walter out with another woman. All five of these episodes, particularly “Like Mother, Like Daughter,” “The Convention,” and “Walter’s Secret,” deserve to make the above list.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Maude goes to…..
“Maude’s Dilemma (I)”
Come back next Tuesday for the best from the second season! And tune in tomorrow for a new Wildcard Wednesday post!